AtlantiCare Chief Operating Officer Margaret Belfield was delighted to hear at the Miss America arrival ceremony Tuesday that Miss Mississippi Chelsea Rick wants to become a neurologist.

“There’s a huge shortage of neurologists,” she said. “We need them.”

AtlantiCare sponsored the welcome event partially to recognize its shared role with Miss America in the history of Atlantic City, Belfield said. But she said AtlantiCare also wants to promote accomplished women, and she was thrilled to see how many of the contestants are planning careers in science-related fields.

That’s a message the Miss America Organization is working harder to get out to the public. This year, the scholarships include two new $5,000 awards for women entering the so-called STEM fields of science, technology, engineering or math. Officials would like to see representatives of major technology companies partnering with the organization as sponsors and supporters of both the competition and women in technology.

Regina Hopper, a member of the Miss America board of directors, said they had been talking for a few years about how to better promote the educational role of Miss America. She said they were working with the U.S. Department of Education when the person involved with STEM education there mentioned how many of the contestants were in STEM areas.

“It really took someone on the outside to point it out to us,” she said.

While the purpose of the competition has been scholarships, Hopper said, they haven’t always been as effective as they would like in presenting Miss America as a woman with brains as well as beauty. She hopes the focus on STEM will raise awareness of contestants in those fields.

“You can be a princess and a scientist,” she said. She is especially pleased that a judge this year is Deidre Downs Gunn, Miss America 2005, who used scholarship funds to get her medical degree and is now doing a residency in gynecology and obstetrics.

About a third of this year’s contestants plan a career in a STEM field, including medicine, engineering and the environment. Miss Wyoming Rebecca Podio hopes to own her own engineering consulting firm one day. Miss Puerto Rico Shenti Lauren wants to be a broadcast meteorologist. Miss Wisconsin Paula Mae Kuiper plans to be a doctor.

Five contestants have been named finalists for the two $5,000 scholarships. They include Miss California Crystal Lee, who attended Stanford University, has degrees in biology and communications, and plans to get an MBA and start her own technology company.

She said her role model growing up was her mother, a computer programmer who was the only woman in the IT department at a community college.

“Women aren’t as well represented in these (STEM) fields, which are so crucial to the future of America,” Lee said. She said she would like to tap into technology companies and meet women who are excelling in those fields, such as CEO Melissa Mayer at Yahoo.

“I could offer them the network of Miss America,” she said. “I’d love to get a company to sponsor a Miss America speaking tour on STEM. It could really take Miss America to the next level.”

Another scholarship finalist, Miss Rhode Island Jessica Marfeo, wants to be the director of the Rhode Island Department of Health. A junior at the University of Rhode Island, she is triple-majoring in biology, elementary education and pre-med to get a thorough background in public-health issues.

She said she is often one of only a few female students in her science classes, but she was motivated in high school by a senior who convinced her when she was just a freshman that she could be a success in the sciences.

“I was very frightened my freshman year,” she said. “She was my mentor. She convinced me to stick with the sciences.”

Hopper said Miss America is a national role model and mentor for young American girls. Mallory Hagan, the current Miss America, did a program with NASA that helped show little girls they can be scientists and still wear pretty dresses and a maybe even a crown.

“Mallory sent that message that you can do both,” she said. “We have to show how smart these women are.”

Other finalists for the STEM scholarship are Miss Mississippi Chelsea Rick, the future neurologist; Miss Nevada Diana Sweeney, who wants to be a college math professor; and Miss South Dakota Tessa Dee, who plans to get a master’s degree in kinesiology and become a physical therapist.

Contact Diane D’Amico:

609-272-7241

Been working with the Press for about 27 years.